Bea Howe was the dedicatee for Sylvia Townsend Warner’s immortal first novel, Lolly Willowes in 1926, and in 1954 she published A Galaxy of Governesses, thanking Sylvia for her support in the acknowledgements. She and Sylvia spent Sylvia’s last birthday together, her 84th, in 1977. That’s a long and fruitful friendship. Bea published some novels herself, which I have lined up to read at the British Library, but I found this interesting title in my local library.
As a survey of the English governess it is fascinating, and a little-known resource for women’s working history. There are no references or footnotes, but the bibliography is extensive, and it’s reasonably easy to see which sources she used since she discusses the diaries or letters or memoirs freely as where she got her information. What amazes me is the number of surviving memoirs that she found, of women working as governesses, from the medieval period onwards, and the pattern they show of the professionalisation of this branch of education. Bea Howe is perfectly right in showing how the figure of the governess – apart from those celebrated by Ann and Charlotte Bronte – has been (in 1954, at any rate) ignored and made invisible in other histories of these periods.
She begins with St Jerome’s comments on the female preceptor of a young woman, and moves through the centuries discussing the lives of, for example, Katherine Swynford (who married her employer John of Gaunt, after having been his mistress as well as the teacher of his and their children), Kat Ashley (governess to the future Elizabeth I), and Anna Leonowens (The King and I). The survey ends with the dying out of the governess with the advent of the 20th century boarding school.
My favourite figure is the Englishwoman (whose name I unaccountably forgot to record, which just perpetuates the invisibility of the governess as an individual person) sent to oversee the daughter of a Brazilian royal family. I think this must have been Isabel, Princess Imperial, daughter of Pedro II, but since her Wikipedia page reads as a bland and uncritical hagiography, and says that she only had a male tutor, I’d have to get A Galaxy of Governesses out of the library again to check. (It took three weeks to arrive the first time, so no.) This early Victorian governess had a far more dramatic and lively time, being hopelessly confounded by court food and court intrigue, and fought back by teaching the child to read with proper books in Portuguese. In the end she resigned, greatly regretted by the child’s mother, and seen off with relief by the Emperor, to whom she was a complete pain the neck. Her indomitable character and strength of will encapsulate the strange middle ground that the governess had to occupy, in terms of responsibility and persuasion, neither a servant nor an advisor but someone always in the middle, in the background, never in full view.
For more on Bea Howe’s writing, see here.
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